The house —if such a simple word could adequately describe it— was an enormous piece of architecture and history. A long, twisting road led toward it, through the hills. Our driver made the approach deftly, but I was too entranced by the sheer mass of the building to notice. Sharp rooftop angles, jutting out. Daunting Gothic architecture. I knew Henry’s family had a wealthy heritage, but this was beyond my imagination. That sunset behind it, the gorgeous tapestry of sky… It was almost too much.
“Beautiful, ain’t it?” our driver remarked. I wanted to answer but found no words.
The mansion —since that’s the only word I can muster that encapsulates it— must have contained countless rooms. A rectangular parking area sat in front of it, which the driver pulled the automobile into, beside a tidy, not-quite-huge garden on one side and a beautiful-but-simple fountain on the other. The house itself looked to be all brick, with two large chimneys that separated the house into three wings. The center was the most majestic, with an enchanting porch and doorway. The sides were less eye-catching but impressive nonetheless. It was a traditional country estate, yet seeing it in person mesmerized me all the same. My family never had anything close to this grandeur.
“Garden’s a bit smaller than I remember,” Henry mused, staring out the window. He appeared excellent as always, sharp and professional, but I could feel his nerves as plainly as my own. “Granted, that was years ago. Whatever I do remember.”
I touched his hand and he smiled at me faintly, but still, that look in his eyes. Worry. Anxiety. He hadn’t seen his great aunt for years, not since he was a child. Of course, I’d never seen her, not even pictures. Of her or the house. All I knew was that she owned a lot of money, so I expected her disposition to be that arrogant, grouchy, pent-up widower like in every story I’d ever heard.
“Eh, ma’am’s probably asleep, already,” the driver remarked, glancing at his watch. “Watch your step on the porch. Stop at the door and I’ll be ‘round to let you in.”
He pulled the car to a stop. I felt thankful; I hated riding in these automobiles, with the fumes and the bumping. Henry opened his door and met the stairs that led to the front porch. I followed suit, grabbing my luggage.
“I’ll take care of that.” The driver shot a kind smile in my direction and I relented.
Henry stood by the door as I approached, facing the solid oak barrier. He flinched, almost touching the handle, but drew back. I heard the driver parking the car as we waited for him and the bags.
“Are you surprised she’s asleep before eight?” I asked Henry in a low voice.
“Didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “Still don’t. Honestly, I’m glad we get a night alone.”
I rubbed the small of his back and nodded. “Good point.”
I turned around. The view from the house was just as spectacular as the building itself. Below this line of hills, a small community rested, the town of New Haven. A collection of buildings, surrounded by farmland. I was about to ask Henry about that town, could we take a trip down there sometime?, when the door opened behind me.
The driver let us into the house quietly and gave us the four bags we’d packed. It only took him a few moments to show us to the staircase, pointing out the dining room, the sitting room, the kitchen, and explaining the layout of the house as we progressed. It was too much for me to understand right then; the house sounded like it stretched on and on. I figured I could explore, at some point, and then I’d have a better grip on the layout.
“The whole place’s empty. Jus’ storage and cobwebs, you know,” he continued, moving up the stairs. Our footsteps creaked loudly as we ascended. “Well, ‘cept for ma’am and myself.”
As we reached the landing, he hushed us and gestured to the right.
“Her room’s down that way.” He led us in the opposite direction and to one of four doors. Unlocking the room and pushing the door open, he said, “Rooms on the right, for guests. To your left, the bathroom. Make y’selves at home.”
The room was simple enough, much like the interior of the house, but contained a few lavish aspects. The bed was covered in a silver-colored drape and the edges of the frame were immaculate, likely faux gold but the color shone just as bright. We each had an antique-looking dresser. There was a small table on either side of the bed, and a large vanity across from the bed’s foot. A small desk sat under the window, with what appeared to be a quill and ink vase resting on it.
“Is that real ink and everything?” I asked, fixating on it.
Henry strolled around the room, inspecting the furniture and the bed itself. He pushed on it, felt the mattress, and then ran his fingers over the drapes. A smile crept to his face. He just looked like he belonged here, and he radiated positivity.
He appeared more at home here than that all-male college. His university, beside my own hometown, was a very stiff place. Henry benefited from it —he was the type of man my father doted over: articulate, proper, knowledgeable, and mannered— but he was also trapped by it.
In my hometown, we didn’t have a single building this large, unless you counted the university, but I never stepped foot on campus. Henry met me on my own turf; the small, out-of-the-way town which nobody ever visited, unless they were a student at said university. This massive house suited him far better. It was a place he could grow and thrive. And, perhaps, propose…
Henry thanked the driver and I pulled myself out of my daydreams to follow suit.
“Yeah, ‘course. I’ll be downstairs, in the servant’s quarters. If ya need anything. Won’t be no formal dinner tonight, so help yourself to anything in the pantry. Just don’t wake her.” There was no question of who he referred to. He took an awkward bow —which I saw as overkill— and left us alone.
Henry shrugged and gestured to the window. “Nice day out.”
“It’s a shame we can’t go outside.” I sighed and stepped toward him, resting my chin on his shoulder. I felt the unfamiliar weight on my left finger, twisted the ring around my skin. “It’s weird. Pretending to be engaged.”
“Don’t get any ideas,” he smirked. “You know it’s just so my aunt… doesn’t freak out on us.”
“But still. It’s kinda nice, right?”
We stood there for a few moments, lost in thought. He kissed me on the forehead and broke contact.
“I’m gonna pop downstairs and check out the study and the library. See what my uncle was up to ‘til he went belly up.”
I nodded. “I’ll unpack a bit. That sitting room looked really nice. Maybe what’s-his-name will start the fire if I ask nicely.”
Henry scoffed. “You think I don’t know how to start a fire?”
I smirked and kissed his cheek. “Maybe I just wanna use our servant while we have one.”
He left the room and left me alone with my thoughts. Thoughts about proposals and engagements. It was the only reason my father had let me come, since he could’ve used the extra hands around the shop. (His shop only ran smoothly because of me, as he got older and slower.) But I’d begged him, I’d said Henry was probably going to propose. This was my first time meeting his family, after all.
“I’ve been waiting for this,” I insisted. “I think it’s really time and he’s going to do it.”
So my father relented and I accompanied Henry on that miserable ride in the automobile, all the way to this glorious house. With a ring on my finger, hope swimming in my brain. Henry was the kindest man I’ve ever known. He also favored surprises, so I couldn’t wait for the next one, hiding just around the corner.
Henry’s proposal. The final step, transforming this charade into a real thing. No matter how calm he acted, I knew Henry was up to something. I could hardly contain myself with excitement.
Later that day, I set up my notebook, a pencil, and a pen at one of the small tables in the sitting room. Bob, as I’d come to know him, started a large fire across the room. He said they didn’t use the firepit often, but seeing as it was a chilly night he had no objection. I think he was just being kind, but all the same it made the room more cozy.
Sitting next to an oil lamp, since the fire didn’t put off enough light for drawing, I sketched out the area around the firepit first but struggled with the intricacies of the bricks and gave up. It’d been a long time since I was able to draw freely, without distractions. Always working in the shop, always assisting my father. I think I looked forward to it so much that when I actually had the chance it felt like a let-down.
Henry clambered around a bit, but the library didn’t hold his attention for long. He took a book with him, which surprised me, but it was barely dark when he said goodnight and left me. His footsteps resounded up the main staircase, softer and softer, until they were gone. I was left alone in the dark expanse of the house with only the battling light from the lamp and the fire for company.
My eyes turned to the front door every so often. With my back to the wall in the sitting room, I had a perfect view of it. It was about ten feet away, through a large doorway. I started to draw that instead and it worked out slightly better. The edges were difficult, but the pattern of the wood was simple and I could trace it easily with just my eyes.
I heard footsteps on the staircase again and expected Henry to emerge, probably asking when I’d come to bed. He’d been gone for about an hour now, which probably put it at eleven o’clock.
The footsteps reached the ground floor and were muffled by the carpet. They trailed along the hallway, passing by the first entrance to the sitting room. I felt a little uneasy about this. Probably not Henry, then. It could only be…
A haggard, old woman shifted into view. She stood at the front door, pressing her wrinkled face against its surface. I couldn’t see her expression, blocked by the mess of curls that clung to his cheeks and fell to her shoulders. Her fingernails were short and chewed as she pressed one hand to the glass. With the other, she fumbled with the door’s locks. The handle, two deadbolts, and one of those door chains. Without noticing me, she then turned back the way she’d come and ascended to the second floor.
This disturbed me for a while, but I went back to drawing. About an hour later, however, she did the same thing. I noticed more about her this time. The stained, loose nightgown that she wore and the blotchy tone of her face. Once again, she took no notice of me. And then a third time later on, and finally a fourth around two in the morning.
At this point, the sole reason I stayed awake was to observe her. Something entranced me about this woman and her paranoia. What was she afraid of? Did she forget that she’d already checked the door? Was she expecting someone?
I mustered my courage on her fourth visit and as her hand touched the first lock, I said, “Hello, ma’am.”
My voice erupted like a drum in the pitch-black silence of the house. She snapped in my direction, eyes wide, face of terror. Then she locked onto me and her features softened, breathing slowed. She placed a hand over her heart and shuffled into the sitting room.
“Goodness, you scared me.” She smiled feebly. “I had no idea you were down here. It’s so late.”
I nodded, unsure of what to say. I figured I had to say something. After all, I’d started this conversation. And I’d waited for her to return all those times.
“Are you okay?”
She cocked her head. “Why, yes. I’m fine. And you?”
“Good.” I chewed on the end of my pen, avoiding her eyes. “I just thought because you’ve…”
The old woman chuckled. “How long have you been down here?”
“Probably four or five hours.”
“Yes, I see.” She shrugged. “I do like to check the door often. Makes me sleep better. Knowing everything is still out there.”
“How… how many times do you check? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Oh, you know. Seven or eight.” Her eyes drifted to the sketches in front of me. “Those are wonderful. That’s my door, right?”
“And you are, I’m guessing, the fiance of my great nephew?”
Again, I could only nod.
“My name is Sylvia,” she went on, reaching out to shake my hand.
I felt the empty, soft grip of her fingers and retracted my hand as soon as it was appropriate. “Bailey,” I said in turn.
“Well, do enjoy your stay, Bailey. I’ll be heading back to my bed for now.” She grinned at me again, a twinkle in her eye, before leaving as quietly as she’d come.
When I tired of drawing, I shuffled to the back of the house, where a hallway ran along the wall, facing the yard outside and the line of trees. There were windows every few feet, a perfect vantage point to stare into the backyard and past it.
On my own, standing on the first floor, the house felt enormous. Too big for any one person. I couldn’t blame Sylvia, if she’d started to lose her mind, living here on her own. I would’ve gone crazy, too, if it was just me and all these long hallways, all these shadowy corners.
Lost in thought, I stared at the trees in the distance, where the darkness collected around their bases. Something shifted out there. The darkness moved or perhaps something in it. I watched, in amazement, as a hulking, massive animal stepped out of the trees. Those tiny eyes, glinting in the moonlight, were peering right at me.
I stumbled back, away from the window, and covered my mouth. At the same moment, whatever I’d seen also stepped back. It vanished, once again, into the forest. I thought, at first, maybe I’d imagined it. I was awfully tired, after all.
But I knew, deep down, what I had seen. And that it had seen me, too.